Monthly Archives: January 2011

On words and a love for dictionaries

A zillion years ago, I majored in English at Bluffton College (now University). English. Not English education. Didn’t plan to teach. Had not a whit of an idea of what I would do with the rest of my life. But English was fun…all that reading, writing, analyzing, etc. And yes, I was one of a very few in my graduating class. Today, at least one of the others is a college professor. A few of us fell into journalism.

I love words. I love reading dictionaries. That wasn’t always true. Let’s blame that on my dad. Well, you can probably also blame him for the fact that eventually I learned to love dictionaries. When I was a kid and got stuck on a word, I’d ask my dad. Hey, he was a college professor with a PhD. He knew everything, right? But here’s the thing. He never gave me a direct answer. His usual response was, “You know where the dictionary is.” And yes, I did, but it was easier to ask. Eventually — probably after about 20 years — I learned to quit asking.

When our kids were growing up, we often played the dictionary game after dinner. It was a ruse to keep them at the table. Each person got to pick a word from the dictionary and try to stump the others. Yeah, we were a pretty nerdy, boring family. But it was a great way for the girls to learn new words. Thing is, they both surpassed us long ago.

So anyway, yesterday I was grading a student’s research paper draft. She’d used the word “continual.” My first thought was that she was wrong…that it should have been “continuous.” So, I logged onto my favorite online dictionary (I was not in my office and didn’t have access to the paper version, which would have been my first choice). Turned out she was right; I was wrong. She’d used “continual” in the right context.

And just in case you’ve read this far and wonder about the difference between the two? Look them up. You know where the dictionary is.

Remembering Phyllis

Saturday morning as I rounded the indoor track and dreamed of being on the outdoor track, a vision popped into my mind…one of Phyllis Ehrman Moser, about 12 years ago. We often met at the track. While I ran, she walked. But boy, could that woman walk…long legs striding, arms swinging in the true, graceful form of a race walker.

She once told me about participating in a race some time after she’d undergone successful treatment of breast cancer. She proudly wore her race shirt for years — it was a reminder of what she’d been through. In the winters, she’d disappear from the scene but not from walking. Her basement became her indoor track and she’d do laps around and around and around. When the snow and ice cleared, she was back on the track — a tall form in a white sweatsuit, with a bright smile and cheery wave.

One morning I watched as she came up the road and through the parking lot to the track. She stopped periodically, bending over to pick up something. When she got closer, I realized she was carrying a plastic bag. She’d decided to do her part in keeping Bluffton clean by picking up trash while she walked. I often wondered how many bags she managed to fill over the years.

Memories of her carried me through Saturday’s run, but as the day went on, I forgot about it. Later that night, when we returned from a trip out of town, my husband — as usual — checked his Bluffton Icon inbox for any news to report. Phyllis Ehrman Moser had died at 6:20 a.m., less than two hours before I’d started my run. Wonder what prompted my thoughts of her?

Phyllis was my voice teacher in college. I loved my lessons with her — she was so cheerful, so encouraging, and so willing to let me sing what appealed to me. She had a silly side that I think she only shared with certain people — maybe sensing when another person shared that need for some silliness.

And she could sing. Wow. Could she sing. I once asked her how many times she’d sung in the Messiah, and she thought it must be over 50 years. She must have known it from memory.

The last time I saw Phyllis, I’m pretty sure she didn’t recognize me, but that didn’t matter. Her face lit up with that beautiful, bright, infectious smile. I miss her already.

Things that made me smile

What makes you smile? Fresh flowers, sun, a hug, a funny joke.

I love fresh flowers. Daisies are probably my favorite because they’re so sunny and make me smile. So…it’s mid-January and why am I thinking about flowers? Okay, partly because I just like to think about them, but also because at our employee dinner, I received my 15-year ceramic vase made by one of my favorite artists — Gregg Luginbuhl. I told Gregg that I planned to keep it filled with fresh flowers on my desk at work. I hope that pleased him. It pleases me. Every time I walk in my office, I see a bunch of yellow daisies, alstroemeria and snapdragons. Wouldn’t that make anyone smile?

That’s not all. In our living room, we had a big bunch of huge Gerbera daisies. After two weeks, they were slowly dying, one at a time. I plucked the last two of the bunch, snipped their stems short and put them in a tiny vase in the bathroom. Okay, here’s the thing. Flowers in a bathroom might seem strange to some people, but think about it. The smell can mask some other not-so-pleasant ones.

This whole flower thing started me thinking about things that made me smile this week…a week that should have been a lot easier than last week, but turned out to be almost as challenging. But I read something recently about the importance of writing down…at the end of the day…one thing that made you smile. So here it is the end of the week and since I never got around to doing this on a daily basis, I’m doing it now. Here are some things that made me smile.

1.) A virtual bouquet of flowers from daughter no. 1.

2.) A second e-mail with another virtual bouquet of flowers from the same daughter.

3.) My mom remembered something that I didn’t, which just proves that she still has the upper hand.

4.) A hug from a coworker. For no reason except she somehow knew that I needed one.

5.) Listening to my husband hum while he mops the kitchen floor.

6.) A student thanking me for helping her get started back to school.

7.) An e-mail from daughter no. 2 telling me that she was filling out her grad school application.

8.) Hearing a snowplow behind my house in the very early, very dark hours — reminding me that the campus maintenance crew was already clearing paths.

9.) A new pair of Smartwool socks.

10.) A slew of e-mails from my brothers, asking what they can do to make life easier.

11.) Seeing pictures of my cousin’s two newest grandsons — born in the same week and weighing exactly the same amount at birth.

12.) Powering up the snow blower…which sort of made up for not getting to mow last summer…and getting a face-full of white, powdery snow.

13.) Sitting on my 40-year-old butterfly chair in the dark of the early morning, remembering hours spent in that same chair while pestering my dad in his study.

14.) Stopping in the middle of the road to watch three deer saunter across the road…and remembering my daughter’s description of the deer that “dropped out of nowhere” to slam into our van.

15.) Listening to Babs sing SMILE. (Be sure to click on the word, smile.)

Mennonites, farmers and Sunday night popcorn

On Sunday, my friend, Becky, who just happens to be married to my cousin, Gary, made the comment on Facebook that they were having popcorn for supper. She and Gary both grew up having popcorn for Sunday supper, sometimes accompanied by cheese and veggies.

That comment set off a slew of responses from other friends who also grew up having popcorn for Sunday night supper. Most of us still do. Coincidentally, all of those responded are (a) Mennonite, (b) grew up in the Midwest, (c) have farming roots, and (d) grew up having huge Sunday dinners.

Looking back, maybe the popcorn tradition grew out of sheer exhaustion on our mothers’ parts. They’d cooked for the family all week and by Sunday night, were ready for a night off.

So we discussed this a little bit more, and discovered that several of our families also deemed Sunday supper the one meal where we could eat wherever we wanted. Becky’s family often watched tv on their little black and white that probably got all of three stations. My family — the last in town to get a tv because my dad insisted on waiting until his boss — the college president — got one, played games or read.

Becky says she asked Gary where he thought this originated. He had two explanations: 1) that we were all members of the same cult, and 2) that “it started with the farmers, on the Sundays when the horses weren’t working they gave them a high fiber diet of bran. They figured if it was good enough for the horses it was good enough for the family, and so they used popcorn as the high fiber diet!”

Here’s the thing. There’s a slight hole in that theory. Gary and I share the same grandparents. Our moms are sisters. They come from a long line of “teasers” and I know for a fact that Gary has inherited that tendency. But hey, the horse idea is a good one.

When my husband and I married, I suggested we continue the popcorn routine. I suspect he never was crazy about it, because often he would bake cornbread. But our girls loved the idea, especially the option of eating wherever they wanted to.

And so…we carry on…popcorn, cheese, veggies, fruit and a good book. And for Fred, some cornbread with maple syrup. What better way to end the weekend?

Found money

My husband and I have this thing about finding money. We pick it up. Of course. Who wouldn’t? Apparently, not everyone does this because one day while walking to lunch with two friends, I spied a penny on the ground. As I picked it up, they both gasped and bellowed, “Was it heads or tails?”

Umm…gee. I didn’t know — I already had it in my hand. Who cares? They informed me that it was bad luck to pick up a penny that was tails up. You know what? I don’t give a rat’s you-know-what if it is tails or heads up. It’s a penny and yes, I realize the value of a penny is insignificant to some people but there’s this jar in my kitchen that doesn’t agree.

See, here’s the thing. We’ve been collecting found money ever since Jim Kinn told my husband that when he and Sue take walks, they have to walk until they’ve found money…penny, nickle, quarter, whatever. I assume this means that they give themselves an “out” once in a while because otherwise they’d be a pretty tired and bedraggled looking couple.

Anyway, we decided to adopt that routine. This works well in theory. It also works a LOT better when there is no snow on the ground. A few years ago, we expanded our definition of “found money.” This happened one day when our daughter came to visit…along with a large bag of dirty laundry. Because our daughters have been shoving things in their pockets since they discovered worms and bugs, I check pockets. And I find money.

So…found money can be “found” anywhere…on the street, in a pocket, on the floor, on the countertop, wherever someone drops it — intentional or not. This can sometimes cause some dissension among the ranks…especially if it’s paper money left in a pocket. Whatever, wherever…the found money goes into the jar on the windowsill. On New Year’s Eve, we count the money we’ve found over the last 12 months and we use it to take ourselves out to dinner.

When we remove the money from the jar, we replace it with a scrap of paper on which we’ve written the year and the amount. Just for the record, this is what we have found in the last four years:

2007    $22.19
2008     $23.07 (Note to Everett C. — this included two $5 bills that Fred thinks were yours)
2009     $12.25 (This was an economic downturn year — Fred’s analysis is that people were tight with their money)
2010     $27.80 (The economy went crazy…people were dropping money all over the place)
2011      $.25 to date….

Oh, and by the way, this project has solved one problem. The girls still bring home laundry once in a while, but when they walk in the door, their instructions are, “You are NOT going to wash my clothes. I will do them.” Huh. Too bad. Guess they figured they were missing some money.

Return of the dreaded month

It’s back. January. No matter how hard I try to skip this month, it always comes back to haunt me. I hate it. Well, maybe that’s too strong of a word. I strongly dislike it. Very strongly. But since I don’t get my pick of months, there’s no skipping it.

My husband threatens every year to ship me off to Arizona for a month to stay with my brothers. I’m not sure if that’s because he thinks the sun will be brighter there or if he just thinks my brothers are better prepared to deal with my grouchiness. Probably a little bit of both.

Here’s the thing. I have this job. It requires me to stay put during January…in fact, it’s usually one of my busier months since we have new students starting up in a few weeks. So this busyness should keep my mind off the fact that it is January…dark…dreary…cold…snowy…in general, a yucky time of year.

About 10 years ago, I realized I’m part of a club. I didn’t ask to join this club; in fact, if I had my way, I would not join any clubs. But there it is….a club one is assigned to whether one likes it or not. It’s called SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which very simply translates to winter depression or winter blues. There are those who claim this is bunk.Well, bully for them.

Fortunately, I’m in good company. I share this with my husband, a child, several friends, and probably a whole slew of others.

You’d think by now I’d be ready for this…but no. Every year it sneaks up on me like a nasty cold. It hangs around and around until about the end of February when the world lightens up. The sky lightens earlier in the day and the night sky darkens later in the evening.

So out come the magic lights…those bright, luminous boxes that deliver the elixir of energy. Sit in front of one of these every day and you’ll smile through the darkness. Add an even more magical wake-up light that is said to align “the body’s circadian rhythms that regulate normal sleeping and waking patterns”.

Okay, so I might not bound out of bed but slowly waking up to this pseudo sunshine makes getting up easier. And my husband might not ship me off to AZ to face Big Brother.


I don’t make resolutions, but IF I did…

Back in the Babylonian empire, people made resolutions on March 23, the spring equinox and their new year. Actually, that’s not such a bad idea. Because who wants to make resolutions in the dead of winter anyway? If we started our new year on March 23, as least spring would be right around the corner and we’d have more of an interest in moving beyond the nearest recliner.

Here’s another thought: One common resolution among the Babylonians was to give back something one had borrowed in the past year. This holds a certain appeal. Here’s what I’d give back: All the prayers and strength that people lent to me throughout the summer when I was recovering from the abscess-that-baffled-the-physicians-and-me. Or maybe I wouldn’t really give them back…I’d pass them on to someone else who needs them.

When I was young, I toyed with resolutions like 1) eat a whole carton of Whoppers in one day; 2) ignore the stupid boys who were bugging me; 3) collect more dust in my room than Kathy Bohn collected in hers; 4) get revenge on my brothers for burning those stinky black things under my bed; and 5) convince my mom to hem my dress at least three inches shorter than she wanted to.

Technically, I don’t make resolutions but if I did, this is what I would resolve:

1.) Learn how to play all the games Lindsay put on my iPod Touch. Actually, first, learn where they are.

2.) Spend an entire Sunday doing nothing but reading the NYTimes cover to cover…instead of spreading it out over a week.

3.) Read one book per week (I stole this from Stephanie Spencer).

4.) Talk to my daughters once a day instead of texting.

5.) Watch a movie at a movie theater with my husband instead of watching and re-watching episodes of Moonlighting, Monk, Remington Steele, Seinfeld, Hogan’s Heroes, Perry Mason, etc.

6.) Convince the dog NOT to have a growl fest in the middle of the night.

7.) Convince the cat that kitty Prozac really does taste good and thereby, avoid more cat bites

8.) Bike the entire 18.5 miles of the lakefront bike path in Chicago.

9.) Shop at Uncle Fun’s

10.) Keep the garden free of weeds. (Oh, I can hear the laughing already.)

See, this is the thing about resolutions. You either have to realize that somewhere along the way you’ll probably fail to keep them and/or come up with resolutions that you know will happen. At least this way you have a 50-50 chance of success. Don’t ask how I came up with that percentage. I was never any good at math.


Who stole my husband?

Dear Lindsay and Anne,

Someone has stolen your father and replaced him with a man who GETS RID OF THINGS. Here’s what happened:

Last week I suggested we purge the reading room bookshelves. He agreed. Wholeheartedly. This was my first clue that something was up.

Then, later in the week, as we were preparing for the trip to Chicago and Milwaukee to attend the 70th bday party of Auntie M, I found him polishing some of the old musical instruments — i.e., the cello (no, I’m not kidding), a trombone (not yours), several violins missing bridges and strings (not yours), THE TOP HAT, a large jar of old keys, etc. You get the picture. Bits and pieces of “The collection.”

I eyed him skeptically, and — yes, considered taking his temperature. What exactly, did he have in mind, I asked?

“I’m giving some things away.”

Now, you know, after 30 years of living with this man, not much surprises me. EXCEPT…his voluntary willingness to part with favorite pieces of his family collection. Apparently, he has decided to gradually gift these items to deserving family members. As he puts it, “it’s time.” Apparently, the occasion of ‘Auntie M’s 70th birthday seemed like the ideal time to do the “final reading of the will.”

His explanation is that these were items he and Grandma had agreed to dispense amongst the descendants. Actually, I think he made that up, but it made for a good show. Hence, the “reading of the will”.

You know what? Your older cousins were ecstatic. Their kids weren’t quite so sure about the reasoning behind this. In fact, most of them are now even more convinced that their beloved Uncle Fred has lost it.

I, on the other hand, am sure that over Christmas vacation, the two of you slipped something into your dad’s sherry. Whatever it was…thanks. The house feels lighter already.

Love and hugs,